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MPhys in the USA? How do I pick a specialty?

  1. Nov 3, 2008 #1
    Hi everyone

    I'm a 3rd year undergrad at the Universty of Leicester in the UK. At the moment I'm on the four year masters course in physics here (so I'll be awarded an MPhys at the end of my 4 years here instead of a bachelors then a masters). I've had a rocky time course-wise recently as I started the year at a French uni but moved back here fairly quickly because I didn't find the course there suited me and, well, I wasn't keen enough on the town to stay for a course I didn't like. So I'm back in Leicester but feeling very lacklustre. I was wondering whether dropping down to the bachelors and moving uni for the masters would help me get back on track. My grades are pretty good here and I have been a very comfortable 1st (is that a 4.0 or 3.5 in US? I dunno, I get confused!) the last two years, and have been advancing classes from the years above both years. I was turning my attention to universities in the USA (or maybe Canada) but I what is the system in the US for a masters course? In the UK it is only a year long so you do a pile of taught courses and a short (4/5month) research project. What's it like trying to apply particularly when you have no clue what a GRE test really is and where you get one done?

    I'm also quite unsure about what sort of area I'm interested in speciality-wise. I picked the physics with planetary science degree course here but am feeling less sure about planetary science these days. If I was picking a masters course in the US how much would it matter whether or not I knew what I wanted to do? Can I just do a straight physics masters and play around in a few areas or do they expect you to be sure that, say, non-linear dynamics was going to be your life?

    Finally, (sorry for the long message!) any suggestions on which universities are worth applying for? Do some universities give preference to US students?

    Thanks a lot!
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 3, 2008 #2


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    The masters degree in the US varies from school to school. In general, it's two years of advanced coursework in physics. Some schools will give you a masters after completing the coursework, others will require you to do a research project (I've seen that add a year or more to some people's masters work), others will require you to get at least a 'masters pass' on the qualifying exams.

    To apply to a masters program, you need to send transcripts, letters of recommendation, and test scores - all masters programs will require the general GRE, and most will require the physics GRE. Go here http://www.ets.org/gre to find out where you can take it near you.

    You don't need to know what you want to study when you get in, and you don't have to go into planetary science just because that's what you're doing now. Find a school with several areas of research that might interest you, and apply there - you can pick an adviser before your first summer after classes (if you have to do a thesis project). And you're not locked into it; if you're going on to the PhD you can switch topics again (although this usually means it will take a bit longer).
  4. Nov 3, 2008 #3


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    What's your long term goal? Do you want to apply for a PhD programme? If so, then I wouldn't bother applying for a masters, since it's quite normal in the US to be accepted onto a PhD course directly from undergrad. Whether you stay onto your fourth year at Leicester would, in my opinion, be a question of whether or not you have left it too late to apply for grad school this year. For your application to be successful, you will probably need to have taken the GRE before Christmas, and applied in January next year. I'm not sure that this is enough time.

    So, either find out whether it's possible for you to apply to grad school this year or, if not, stay for your fourth year, and apply then. Note, however, that most US universities have no comprehension of what an MPhys is (an undergraduate masters degree is an oxymoron to them).

    By the way, I'm from the UK, so can't give you any advice on where specifically to apply.
  5. Nov 3, 2008 #4


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    from Cristo:
    Yes, it is possible, but is this really a good guideline? The question is not as an argument; just interest in knowing better guidelines for choosing Masters or phD or both.
  6. Nov 3, 2008 #5


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    My comments on this issue are by no means authoritative, but I was under the impression that, in the US, one applies to graduate school straight after their Bachelor's degree, and that one needs to basically take a Master's degree (or at least the classes that would be contained in such a degree) en route to their PhD anyway.
  7. Nov 3, 2008 #6


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    Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of physics master's degrees in the USA. There are "terminal" master's degrees, which are often specialized (e.g. applied physics), usually require a thesis, and do not lead onward to a Ph.D. program. There are also "non-terminal" master's degrees which you pick up along the way while in a Ph.D. program, usually after completing a certain number of hours of coursework. These are mainly to give you a tangible "consolation prize" if you leave without finishing the Ph.D.

    If you intend to go on to a Ph.D., the standard procedure in the USA is to enter a Ph.D. program directly after finishing the bachelor's degree.
  8. Nov 5, 2008 #7
    Here's an non-US suggestion.

    First of all, being at Leicester I imagine that you have (or had) an interest in space exploration as well as pure physics/planetary science.

    I would suggest that you do change to the BSc and do a seperate MSc, not least because of the following.

    If you have an interest in space technology/exporation then you could do an MSc at Surrey Space Centre/University of Surrey and in all likelihood, if you are a british citizen, you would have your fees paid and possibly (relatively probably if you apply before the christmas of the year you're going) get a healthy stipend that would cover a fair proportion of your living expenses for the year. It'd also be something fresh, and is very well respected.

    This way you'd end up with two degrees and you won't have had to pay for your MSc.

    Surrey have a nanotechnology MSc that they offer funding for if your British as well, iirc...
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